February 23, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #169: Julia Kuo

I am so pleased to share my conversation with Julia Kuo today! Julia is the illustrator I Dream of Popo, written by Livia Blackburne, and even if you haven't had the exact same experiences as the characters, it's easy to connect with this story right now. In a time when everyone is forced to be socially distant, this book helps readers find ways of connecting with loved ones across long distances and staying positive. Enjoy our chat!

About the book:
I dream with Popo as she rocks me in her arms.
I wave at Popo before I board my flight.
I talk to Popo from across the sea.
I tell Popo about my adventures.

When a young girl and her family emigrate from Taiwan to America, she leaves behind her beloved popo, her grandmother. She misses her popo every day, but even if their visits are fleeting, their love is ever true and strong.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Julia Kuo!

LTPB: What intrigued you most about Livia’s manuscript for I Dream of Popo? What were you most excited to illustrate, and what were some of the more challenging moments?

JK: I loved the sadness and longing in Livia’s story, but I was most excited about it being a Taiwanese story! It’s not my exact story, but I lived in Taiwan from the age of 4 to 5, and so I also left at the same age as Livia. I have a lot of wonderful memories of growing up in Taipei with grandparents from that time. My parents moved back to Taiwan 11 years ago, so I fly back to see them every year. Just like the little girl in the story, I have to say goodbye to them each year and keep in touch via video chat. I knew it would be a special and rare opportunity to draw all of these firsthand experiences.

I think the most challenging aspect of I Dream of Popo was feeling like I didn’t have enough pages to get in all the distinct parts of Taiwanese life that I wanted to include. This book mostly takes place indoors, but so much of Taiwan’s personality is also found outside, like in the crowded alleyways, the rows of street stalls, and busy intersections. I used every part of the book I could, including the title page and the author’s note, to get in some extra images!

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript? Did you have a clear vision for the illustrations when you saw the text?

JK: I love working in new styles, so each manuscript feels like an opportunity to try something new.

The last picture book I worked on before I Dream of Popo was The Sound of Silence, written by Katrina Goldsaito. The style is line based and depends on the intricate and time-intensive detail that I put into each scene. This detail works to convey the “noise” that the character experiences in the book. My approach to I Dream of Popo was almost a reaction against that style; it’s based on simple, flat shapes with only a minimal amount of linework here and there to help distinguish some details. I wanted the images to feel simple, nostalgic, and a little worn - like the way you might think of a memory.

It was clear that I Dream of Popo would have to have a Taiwanese environment, but Livia’s beautiful writing provided another visual motif that I would use throughout the book. The gui hua, or osthmanthus flowers, show up from the first page and continue with the two characters until the last spread. I loved that Livia included this sensory detail, because it ended up being one of my favorite elements of the art!

LTPB: You’re in pretty high demand these days! How do you keep your process fresh with every new book? How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far?

JK: It’s never boring because each book calls for something different! For The Sound of Silence, I spent hours on Google street view, taking screenshots of various parts of Tokyo, and adding in easter eggs of my favorite Japanese cultural items. With I Dream of Popo, I thought about my own memories and combed my photo library for the scenes that felt most familiar to me. Later this year, I’ll be publishing I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story, which explains how birthright citizenship came to be a legal right. Working on that book was all about historical accuracy, so I became very familiar with Arnold Genthe’s photos of San Francisco Chinatown at the turn of the century!

My style has changed a good deal over the years that I’ve been illustrating, but I think the biggest change is that I have more of a grip on making sure an illustration comes out the way I intended it to. It used to be that I honestly didn’t know what would come out of an illustration assignment by the time I would be done. Now I can predict the end product fairly well, which is a relief!

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

JK: I created I Dream of Popo entirely digitally, using Adobe Photoshop. I use Photoshop for the majority of my projects, unless a particular style calls for some analog work. In the past, I used to paint or ink my images, scan the artwork, and touch them up in Photoshop. I did a version of this process for The Sound of Silence. But now I prefer to create images entirely digitally because it’s most efficient for the revisions and speed that illustration work often calls for. I think that if I had more time and freedom it would be nice to have the room to experiment more outside of digital art - so I’m keeping that goal in the back of my mind for the right project!

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

JK: The next book I have coming out is I Am an American: The Wong Kim Story. It’s written by Martha Brockenborough and Grace Lin and will be published by the Little Brown team on 11/2/2021, election day! All the art is finished and we’re in the process of reviewing proofs and F&Gs for those last details.

I’m also publishing my debut children’s book, Let’s Do Everything and Nothing next year! It’s about balancing the joy of going on incredible adventures with finding peace and contentment back at home.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

JK: It would be my best friend, Emily Dove! She’s an amazing illustrator and I have always been in awe of her style. I couldn’t dream of anything more perfect than having her illustrate some of the most meaningful parts of my life, especially because she is a big part of many of those memories!

One of those wonderful memories is being artists in residence together at Banff Centre for the Arts a few winters ago. We hiked up snowy mountains, soaked in natural hot springs, and even went dogsledding over a frozen lake - and then we recorded our adventures in illustrations! I love that we both drew each other dogsledding.

A million thanks to Julia for talking to me about her work! I Dream of Popo published last month from Roaring Brook Press!

Special thanks to Julia and Roaring Brook for use of these images!

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  1. Heartwarming sweetness surging while watching the interview.
    XO from 🇹🇼 Taiwan